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Illegal
Guillermo Mayer applauds the AP Stylebook's kibosh on "illegal immigrant."

By Guillermo Mayer

The Associated Press dropped the use of the term "illegal immigrant" because, it says, "illegal" should only refer to an action, not a person.

As a lawyer who works with fellow immigrants, I applaud the AP's decision.

Words are powerful. They can work for us or against us, bring us together or push us apart.

Even if, for you, "immigrant" has positive connotations (perhaps you think of opportunity or safe haven), "illegal" does not. That word raises images of crime, danger, even moral deprivation.

Taken together, the words "illegal immigrant" pack a powerful punch, casting people living here without legal status as worthy of scorn, rather than compassion.

Growing up on both sides of the Tijuana/San Diego border,  I often saw crowds of men, women and children waiting for sunset to either climb over or tunnel under the iron fence and begin their journey to "el otro lado."

I saw families running across the freeway right in front of our car, and hiding in the bushes from the Border Patrol. Seeing them, I felt not antagonism for lawbreakers, but concern for poor people risking life and liberty to work in constant fear.

Today, the journey is more perilous, often across deserts in fearsome temperatures. Four-hundred sixty-three people died last year crossing the border -- that doesn't account for those never found.

Is "illegal" really the first thought that comes to mind to describe people in this situation? Their crossing is not permitted by law, but aren't they courageous or at least worthy of compassion?

No human being is illegal and they're not called "illegal" in other areas of law. Those who drive over the speed limit, build an addition to their home without a permit are not labeled "illegals." They are accused of doing something against the law.

A word change will not resolve the immigration debate. And, no, it will not take away the hardships faced by many immigrants in America. But it will make the debate more humane and worthy of our participation.

With a Perspective, I'm Guillermo Mayer.

Guillermo Mayer is a senior staff attorney with Public Advocates in San Francisco.

 

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